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Leading With Their Left

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Just two decades ago, the prospect of an overtly left-handed leader raised eyebrows. "Do We Want a Left-Handed President?" intoned a mock-serious headline of a December 1988 essay in The Washington Post's Outlook section, shortly before lefty George H.W. Bush was to raise his right hand to take the oath on Inauguration Day.

The "left-hander syndrome" theory was on the rise then; news media were awash in stories connecting the trait to accidents, psychological disorders and learning disabilities.

The kickoff was a 1980 study of health statistics, which found a significant drop-off in the percentage of lefties among older people. After a follow-up study of baseball records, in which the percentage of southpaws also diminished with age, Canadian psychologist Stanley Coren came to the conclusion that they were dying prematurely.

Two years later, Coren published a book popularizing his theory that left-handedness was a sign of an underlying syndrome, a red flag for a kind of early brain damage that predisposed a person to a palette of problems that could surface throughout his life. And sure enough that very spring, when the first President Bush entered the hospital for an overactive thyroid gland, a condition often caused by stress, one prominent medical expert instead offered this explanation: "People with left-handedness are more prone to auto-immune thyroid disorders."

The left-handed syndrome was largely debunked by subsequent studies throughout the 1990s. As is often the case with follow-up reports, their results rarely made headlines.

Lefties not only are not dying off, but one reason for the recent surge in left-handed presidents could be an overall leftward shift in the population. Of Americans born a century ago, only 3 percent were likely to identify themselves as left-handed, according to a National Geographic survey. Today, estimates range from 12 to 16 percent of the population, depending on how handedness is measured.

Yet particularly for those born before 1950, including McCain, the odds of persevering through school as a lefty were slim. Teachers back then systematically switched the "sinistrals" to right-handed writing -- one explanation for why they appear to "die out" with age.

For ABC political correspondent George Stephanopoulos, being a lefty meant persevering against more than just your typical authority figures. "My grandfather thought writing and eating with your left hand was a sign of evil," he says. The Devil is often depicted as left-handed, so many grandfathers associated the trait with evil, but Stephanopoulos's was a Greek Orthodox priest, and though he didn't take it too seriously, "he would play-slap my hand at the dinner table."

Left-handedness always comes up on the campaign trail, the former presidential aide has noticed. "When Clinton was president, people mentioned it all the time."

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The brain and the body are cross-wired, so it's often assumed that all left-handers are "right brain"-dominant. Yet neuroscience has revealed that the majority of lefties are left-hemisphere-dominant, just like righties. In neuroimaging studies, however, the brains of lefties tend to be more symmetrical, an indication that certain functions are less restricted to the left lobe. Motor skill is one such function; speech can be another. Obama alternates between hands while gesturing as he speaks, which some scientists speculate is a sign that language dominance may be divided between the two hemispheres of the brain.

Symmetrical brains tend to have more connections between the two hemispheres, which can allow for "shared processing," according to Christman.

In cognitive studies, the lefties turn out to be better at integrating stimuli presented to the two hemispheres of the brain, which can help with "episodic memory," the ability to recall details about events and their context. Greater interaction between the hemispheres also comes in handy for reading faces and judging intentions. A 2002 study found that left-handers were substantially better at detecting deception than were right-handers, exhibiting greater sensitivity to the subtleties in communication.

While from a survival perspective it helps to have quick access to the right hemisphere's evolutionary role as crisis response center, too much connecting with the right hemisphere might make the next president overly skittish. In a series of experiments, Christman and his colleagues have found that mixed-handers are more risk-averse than strong handers. The brain's right hemisphere tends to specialize in "withdrawal" responses, activating when a person looks at images of angry faces or spiders. This response was adaptive, facilitating early humans' ability to retreat from a potentially threatening situation.

Greater "cross talk" between the two sides of the brain also can make it difficult to perform two independent tasks at once -- the simultaneous "pat-the-head, rub-the-tummy" drills, for example. So the next president may want to avoid too much multitasking.

No matter what the outcome of the November election, the once-marginalized lefty will take center stage in the White House. Melissa Roth is the author of "The Left Stuff: How the Left-Handed Have Survived and Thrived in a Right-Handed World."


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